The Japanese fleet, it appeared, was targeting an area called "AF," where the much weaker USN would be forced to fight at a numerical disadvantage. Analysts believed the code "AF" signified Midway Island, but they weren't certain. Hypo's commander, USN Lt. Cmdr. Joseph J. Rochefort, devised a trick, which Nimitz approved. In mid-May 1942, the Navy broadcast a phony message: Midway Island's garrison faced a water crisis because its freshwater-producing machinery had broken down. Shortly thereafter, Japanese radio communications reported that "AF" needed water.
Nimitz concluded that the Japanese intended to take Midway. He reinforced the island. Intelligence indicated that the Japanese enjoyed a numerical advantage in warships of almost three to one. Several Japanese planes, like the Zero, were tactically superior to U.S. aircraft.
Nimitz, however, understood the IJN's intentions. He concentrated his own force of three aircraft carriers northeast of Midway and positioned them so their aircraft could help defend the island and, on order, quickly intercept and attack Japanese carrier forces the code-breakers said would strike from the northwest. Nimitz had the Japanese carriers steaming into an ambush.
The well-prepared and courageous USN executed the ambush. The U.S. lost one carrier and 307 dead. In addition to the four sunk carriers, Japan lost a cruiser and over 3,000 dead.
After Midway, the Japanese could no longer militarily win World War II. They could -- and did -- try to make the war so costly in blood and effort that American will would flag and America, despite Pearl Harbor, would accept a negotiated settlement. Despite Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, they failed at that, as well.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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